What About the Fire of Gehenna?
‘GRANTED,’ someone might say, ‘Hades is never used in the Bible to refer to a place of fiery torment. But does not the Bible speak of “hell fire”?’
True, numerous translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures (commonly called the “New Testament”) use the expression “hell fire” or “fires of hell.” In this case the Greek term rendered “hell” is geʹen·na (Gehenna). But is Gehenna the name of a place of fiery torment? Yes, say many of Christendom’s commentators. Yet they well know that the soul is not immortal. They also know that the Scriptures show that immortality is bestowed as a reward only upon those whom God designates as worthy of receiving it, and not as a curse on the wicked so that they might be tormented everlastingly.—Romans 2:6, 7; 1 Corinthians 15:53, 54.
Other commentators of Christendom acknowledge that Gehenna is not a place of eternal fiery torment. Says The New Bible Commentary (page 779): “Gehenna was the Hellenized form of the name of the valley of Hinnom at Jerusalem in which fires were kept constantly burning to consume the refuse of the city. This is a powerful picture of final destruction.”
What is the truth of the matter? The best way to find out is to examine what the Bible itself says.
The term “Gehenna” is found twelve times in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Once it is used by the disciple James, and eleven times it appears in statements attributed to Jesus Christ and relates to a condemnatory judgment. These texts read:
“I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice; but whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt will be accountable to the Supreme Court; whereas whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ [thereby wrongly judging and condemning his brother as morally worthless] will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.”—Matthew 5:22.
“Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”—Matthew 10:28.
“I will indicate to you whom to fear: Fear him who after killing has authority to throw into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear this One.”—Luke 12:5.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you traverse sea and dry land to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one you make him a subject for Gehenna twice as much so as yourselves. Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?”—Matthew 23:15, 33.
“If ever your hand makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go off into Gehenna, into the fire that cannot be put out. And if your foot makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life lame than with two feet to be pitched into Gehenna. And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.”—Mark 9:43-48; see also the similarly worded passages at Matthew 5:29, 30; 18:8, 9.
“Well, the tongue is a fire. The tongue is constituted a world of unrighteousness among our members, for it spots up all the body and sets the wheel of natural life aflame and it is set aflame by Gehenna [that is, improper use of the tongue is as destructive as Gehenna; it can so affect the whole round of life into which a person comes by birth that it can lead to his meriting the judgment of Gehenna].”—James 3:6.
Note that, while these texts associate fire with Gehenna, none of them speak of any conscious existence, any suffering, after death. Rather, as shown at Matthew 10:28, Jesus pointed out that God can “destroy,” not merely the body, but the entire person, the soul, in Gehenna. Just what is the nature of this destruction? An understanding of this is gleaned from a closer examination of the word “Gehenna.”
GEHENNA—THE VALLEY OF HINNOM
Though found in the Christian Greek Scriptures, “Gehenna” is drawn from two Hebrew words, Gaʹi and Hin·nomʹ, meaning Valley of Hinnom. This valley lay south and southwest of Jerusalem. In the days of faithless Judean Kings Ahaz and Manasseh the Valley of Hinnom served as a place for idolatrous religious rites, including the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice. (2 Chronicles 28:1, 3; 33:1, 6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2, 6) Later, good King Josiah put a stop to the idolatrous worship carried on there and made the valley unfit to use for worship.—2 Kings 23:10.
Tradition relates that the Valley of Hinnom thereafter became a place for the disposal of garbage. And the Bible provides confirmation for this. At Jeremiah 31:40, for example, the Valley of Hinnom is evidently called the “low plain of the carcasses and of the fatty ashes.” There was also the “Gate of the Ash-heaps,” a gate that seems to have opened out onto the eastern extremity of the Valley of Hinnom at its juncture with the Kidron Valley.—Nehemiah 3:13, 14.
That Gehenna should be linked with the destructive aspects of a city dump is in full agreement with the words of Jesus Christ. With reference to Gehenna, he said, “their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.” (Mark 9:48) His words evidently allude to the fact that fires burned continually at the city dump, perhaps being intensified by the addition of sulfur. Where the fire did not reach, worms or maggots would breed and feed on what was not consumed by fire.
It should also be observed that Jesus, in speaking of Gehenna in this way, did not introduce a concept completely foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures. In those earlier Scriptures practically identical wording appears in references to what will befall the ungodly.
Isaiah 66:24 foretells that persons having God’s favor “will actually go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that were transgressing against [God]; for the very worms upon them will not die and their fire itself will not be extinguished, and they must become something repulsive to all flesh.” Clearly this is not a picture of conscious torment but of a terrible destruction. What are left are, not conscious souls or “disembodied spirits,” but dead “carcasses.” The scripture shows that it is, not the humans, but the maggots or worms upon them that are alive. No mention is made here of any “immortal soul.”
In the prophecy of Jeremiah the Valley of Hinnom is similarly linked with a destruction of faithless humans. “‘Look! there are days coming,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘when this place will be called no more Topheth and the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the killing. And I will make void the counsel of Judah and of Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those seeking for their soul. And I will give their dead bodies as food to the flying creatures of the heavens and to the beasts of the earth.’”—Jeremiah 19:6, 7.
Note that Jeremiah’s reference to the Valley of Hinnom contains no hint of conscious torment after death. The picture drawn is one of total destruction, the “dead bodies” being consumed by scavenger birds and beasts.
A SYMBOL OF DESTRUCTION
In keeping with the Biblical evidence, then, Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom could appropriately serve as a symbol of destruction but not of conscious fiery torment. Joseph E. Kokjohn, in the Catholic periodical Commonweal, acknowledges this, saying:
“The final place of punishment, evidently, is Gehenna, the Valley of Hinno[m], which at one time had been a place where human sacrifice was offered to pagan gods, but in biblical times had already become the city dump, a refuse heap on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Here the stench and smoke and fire were a constant reminder to the inhabitants of what happened to things that had served their purpose—they were destroyed.”
That the destruction symbolized by Gehenna is a lasting one is shown elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures. The apostle Paul, when writing to Christians at Thessalonica, said that those causing them tribulation would “undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction from before the Lord and from the glory of his strength.”—2 Thessalonians 1:6-9.
Biblical evidence thus makes it plain that those whom God judges as undeserving of life will experience, not eternal torment in a literal fire, but “everlasting destruction.” They will not be preserved alive anywhere. The fire of Gehenna is therefore but a symbol of the totality and thoroughness of that destruction.
It is noteworthy that, in addressing the religious leaders of his day, Jesus Christ said: “Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33) Why was this? It was because those religious leaders were hypocrites. They desired to be looked up to and addressed with high-sounding titles, but they had no regard for those whom they were to help spiritually. They burdened others down with traditional regulations, and disregarded justice, mercy and faithfulness. They were false teachers, placing human traditions above the authority of God’s Word.—Matthew 15:3-6; 23:1-32.
Have you noticed like things among the religious leaders of today, particularly in Christendom? Will they fare any better than the religious leaders of Judaism in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry? Not in the least, for Christendom’s religious leaders have disobediently misrepresented God and the “good news about our Lord Jesus.” So as long as they persist in teaching false doctrines they stand in danger of undergoing the “judicial punishment of everlasting destruction.”
The truth about Gehenna therefore should help us to appreciate the importance of avoiding association with false religion. Not only the leaders but, as Jesus showed, also those who support the false religious teachers are in danger. Jesus Christ, in fact, spoke of a proselyte of the scribes and Pharisees as becoming a ‘subject for Gehenna twice as much so as they were.’ (Matthew 23:15) Hence, people who blindly continue to follow false religious teaching today cannot hope to escape God’s adverse judgment.
While making us think seriously about our own position, this can also be a comforting assurance to us. How so? In that we can be sure that Jehovah God will not leave serious wrongdoing unpunished. If people do not want to conform to his righteous laws and deliberately persist in a course of wickedness, he will not allow them much longer to continue to disrupt the peace of righteous people.
[Map on page 113]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
MAP OF FIRST-CENTURY JERUSALEM
VALLEY OF HINNOM (GEHENNA)